The boxing in “Penitentiary” is awkward, sloppy and raw, which is fitting because so is the filmmaking.
Set in the brutal, rough-and-tumble milieu of a prison where almost everyone beats on everyone else, “Penitentiary” has all the elements of a Blaxploitation epic without exactly being Blaxploitation: bad acting, cornball dialogue, random bursts of gratuitous sex and nudity. But “Penitentiary” is missing the one element that allowed the genre to endure: a sense of fun.
Writer/director Jamaa Fanaka (“Welcome Home Brother Charles”) may have lacked the funds to put this thing over the top, but you gotta hand it to the guy for making do with the budget he had. There is an amateurishness to “Penitentiary” but that ends up working in the movie’s favor — the raw immediacy of some sequences give you the sense that Fanaka staged the film inside a real prison with real, brutish inmates (he didn’t).
If only he could afford a better lead to speak his hackneyed dialogue. “I fight to defend myself, but I ain’t no boxer,” says hero Leon Isaac Kennedy as Too Short and, unfortunately, he ain’t much of an actor, either. Too Short is a drifter who is framed for murder in the film’s opening scene and sent to the aforementioned prison of the merciless. Under the pretense of early parole, he joins the prison’s lucrative boxing program, seeking dominance over his cold-blooded counterparts and participating in some of the lousiest training montages you’ll ever see.
Kennedy may be a featherweight in the charisma department, but Fanaka does get fine work out of Floyd “Wildcat” Chapman in the Burgess Meredith role as Too Short’s mentor/trainer. Chapman gives a quiet, surprisingly tender performance that stands out. On the flip side, it does feel a little weird that Chapman would choose the hacky “Penitentiary” script to beef up his chances at winning Best Supporting Actor.
Chapman’s subtle line-readings are a highlight to “Penitentiary,” but the lowlights — cumbersome dialogue, awkward love scenes, casual brutality and wild shifts in tone — TKO what could have been a sucker-punch to boxing movie aficionados.
Rated: R for raw language, brutal violence and nudity
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Starring: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Floyd Chapman
★★ (out of ★★★★)